Memorisation and the ‘proper’ pianist

It always surprises me how entrenched people are on the subject of memorising music, especially with regard to pianists, and it was probably a mistake on my part to argue on Twitter for a relaxation in playing from memory in concert (and elsewhere) with a professional pianist whose attitude and approach to memorisation was inculcated from a young age and reinforced during professional training in conservatoire.

There are sound reasons for playing from memory and it should not be regarded simply as a virtuoso affectation (the ability to memorise demonstrates a very high degree of skill and application). It can allow the performer greater physical freedom and peripheral vision, more varied expression and deeper communication with listeners. But the pressure to memorise can also lead to increased performance anxiety – I have come across a number of professional pianists who have given up solo work because of the unpleasant pressure to memorise and the attendant anxiety. I have also heard of promoters who won’t book a pianist who doesn’t play from memory. To play or not to play without the score should surely be a personal artistic decision?

The custom of the pianist playing an entire programme from memory was established in the mid-nineteenth century, Clara Schumann and Franz Liszt setting a trend for concert pianists which persists to this day. Beethoven disapproved of the practice, feeling it would make the performer lazy about the detailed markings on the score; and Chopin is reported to have been angry when he heard that one of his pupils was intending to play him a Nocturne from memory.  Today it’s considered de rigueur – for concerts, competitions and auditions – and is a significant aspect of the pianist’s skill set.

Somehow the idea persists that for a pianist to use a score in a performance suggests a lack of mastery or sufficient preparation

– Anthony Tommasini, New York Times

Audiences too have fairly trenchant views on the subject and expect a professional pianist to play an entire programme from memory. It’s all part of the virtuoso ‘persona’, and it’s almost as if they think the pianist who uses the score is not up to the job; yet more and more I am seeing pianists in concert playing from the score or using an iPad (a more discreet way of playing from the score). Notable examples include Alexandre Tharaud, Artur Pizzarro and Richard Goode (whose wife turns the pages for him). For some pianists (and, I suspect, many more than who would admit it openly) memorisation can actually limit the range of repertoire performed in concert as some soloists won’t commit themselves to more than a handful of works each season because of the burden memorization places upon them.

Playing with the score on the music desk of the piano doesn’t mean you don’t know the music. Far from it – and if you watch a well-prepared pianist playing “from the score” you will notice that they don’t actually look at the music that often. The entire work may be memorised but having the score there can remove a layer of anxiety which may enable one to play better. I don’t think it should be seen as some kind of crutch or security blanket. It is also common to see a performer using the score for very complex contemporary or new music, and one rarely encounters collaborative pianists playing from memory.

In amateur piano clubs and meetup groups, attitudes to memorisation are amongst the most fervent I have ever encountered, perhaps because many members of these groups revere the great pianists and aspire to their skills, of which playing from memory is seen as the apogee of pianistic brilliance. To these people a “proper” pianist plays from memory. (Those of who do not, such as myself, are therefore “improper pianists”?!). Such is the need to prove oneself in the (sometimes) competitive environment of the piano club, that members will attempt to play from memory, often failing dismally because of 1) lack of proper preparation; 2) anxiety; 3) ego (this is the person who doesn’t even have a copy of the score in her bag, just in case, at the meetup event).

As a regular concert-goer, I am less concerned with how the performer transmits the music to me, and more interested in the performer’s ability to communicate the music, to weave stories, create myriad musical colours, provoke an emotional response (for isn’t that the primary reason why we go to hear and enjoy music?). If you get that right, nothing else should matter…..

For me there was something touching about seeing a great pianist play a Bach prelude and fugue using the score. Every wondrous element of this complex music is right on the page. It looks almost as beautiful as it sounds.

– Anthony Tommasini, New York Times

Header image: the author’s 1913 Bechstein model A piano with scores of music by Fryderyk Chopin, Joseph Schwantner and John Adams on the desk


The late great Sviatoslav Richter playing Schubert from the score



  1. I refuse to play without a score now. The audience can think what they like – it’s a terribly lofty ideal and, as a result, is a major research area in music psychology (performance anxiety). Memorisation and the pressures associated with it contribute to a lot of unnecessary mental strain in music making which, really, are only borne out of the arrogance of a pianist nearly 200 years ago. If pianists are expected to perform solo from memory, than this should ring true with chamber music and accompanying.

  2. A very balanced write-up. In my own experience for examinations I played with music but at certain performances I played from memory. At a school performance my piano teacher got very cross when she found out that at the last minute I decided to use the score. I do find playing from memory gives you more engagement with the audience. But it has to be the right environment, the right audience, and you have to feel totally relaxed.

    Notice how conductors and orchestral players use scores at the performance. I knew someone who went to a conductor masterclass and one of the students wanted to conduct from memory. The maestro said “can you write out that whole score without looking at it?” When the student replied no, the maestro ordered him to get the score.

  3. There is so very much that could be improved upon in contemporary recital culture! Rarely does the performer make decisions based on the best possible experience for the audience, but whenever a performer DOES challenge the assumptions implicit in recital formatting, the impact is fabulous!

    Questioning the non-use of scores in performance should be just the very start of a total rethinking of what is possible for performing pianists.

  4. I have vivid memories of a Prom Concert in my student days [I’m now retired!], when I went to the Stage Door after Clifford Curzon performed one of a series of Mozart Piano Concerti. I asked him why he’d used a score and his response was “Darling girl, at my great age, I have played ALL of the Mozart Piano Concerti, many of which are in the same key. It is not inconceivable that I might start in one Concerto and inadvertently end up in another one!” At that point I decided that, if Clifford Curzon could play with a score, then so could I!

  5. Perhaps one reason why I much prefer playing chamber music – and on the whole only play chamber music in public – is that it’s OK to have the music in front of you! Though there are other reasons too. I’ve got to say though that much as I love Richter I found this performance eccentrically slow and therefore perhaps not a perfect demonstration of playing from score… it almost looks as if he’s sight reading it much of the time….

  6. Thank you for this, Frances! I am one of those pianists who left solo performing because I loathe the anxiety that comes with playing from memory. Thankfully contemporary classical music (the music I play) has relaxed these rigid guidelines; most pianists who play new music play from the score. And your assessment of amateur playing groups is spot-on. Another group that can be fiercely judgmental about playing with music are piano teachers who haven’t performed anything in public since they received their degrees. I’d love to challenge the lot of them to put themselves out there before they maintain such rigid prejudices.

    • Thank you Rhonda – and I too have encountered the attitude you describe amongst certain piano teachers. We need to find ways to ensure we all enjoy our music making on our own terms (while also reminding audiences but it’s less about showmanship and more about communicating the essence and emotions of the music)

  7. Thank you very much for this. It certainly struck a chord with me (if you will forgive the pun).

    As an ardent amateur pianist, I have felt totally inadequate because I find it difficult to play from memory. I have been on the receiving end of condescending and patronising attitudes from some professional pianists at summer schools/courses, which made me beat myself up even more. I also suffer from bad performance nerves, so something that adds a whole lot of extra things to worry about is just too much.

    Anyway, now I am older, I have decided life is too short – there is a load of music I want to learn, so I now focus on good preparation, and eloquent communication, and don’t beat myself up about playing from memory. I also don’t go to those pianists’ courses any more!

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